Mrs Grundy

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Mrs Grundy is a figurative name for an extremely conventional or priggish person,[1] a personification of the tyranny of conventional propriety. A tendency to be overly fearful of what others might think is sometimes referred to as grundyism.

Mrs Grundy originated as an unseen character in Thomas Morton's 1798 play Speed the Plough. References to Mrs Grundy were eventually so well established in the public imagination that in Samuel Butler's 1872 novel Erewhon, the goddess Ydgrun, an anagram for Grundy, dictates social norms. As a figure of speech Mrs Grundy can be found throughout the English-speaking world.

Original appearance[edit]

Curiously for so famous a character, Mrs Grundy never actually appears in the play which introduced her, but is the continual object of the boastful Dame Ashfield's envious watchfulness, as is shown in the very first scene:

Ashfield. Well, Dame, welcome whoam. What news does thee bring vrom market?
Dame. What news, husband? What I always told you; that Farmer Grundy's wheat brought five shillings a quarter more than ours did.
Ash. All the better vor he.
Dame. Ah! the sun seems to shine on purpose for him.
Ash. Come, come, missus, as thee hast not the grace to thank God for prosperous times, dan't thee grumble when they be unkindly a bit.
Dame. And I assure you, Dame Grundy's butter was quite the crack of the market.
Ash. Be quiet, woolye? aleways ding, dinging Dame Grundy into my ears — what will Mrs Grundy zay? What will Mrs Grundy think — Canst thee be quiet, let ur alone, and behave thyzel pratty?
Dame. Certainly I can — I'll tell thee, Tummas, what she said at church last Sunday.
Ash. Canst thee tell what parson zaid? Noa — Then I'll tell thee — A' zaid that envy were as foul a weed as grows, and cankers all wholesome plants that be near it — that's what a' zaid.
Dame. And do you think I envy Mrs Grundy indeed?

Although later usage positions her chiefly as a feared dispenser of disapproval, the Mrs Grundy of the play is, in Dame Ashfield's daydreams, not so much a figure of dread as a cowed audience to the accomplishments of the Ashfield family. As the play progresses, Dame Ashfield and her comical musings soon drop from sight to make way for melodrama.

Victorian heyday[edit]

With the Victorian era, its new morality of decency, domesticity, serious-mindedness, propriety and community discipline on the one hand, its humbug, hypocrisy and self-deception on the other,[2] Mrs Grundy swiftly rose to a position of censorious authority. In John Poole's 1841 novel Phineas Quiddy, Poole wrote "Many people take the entire world to be one huge Mrs. Grundy, and, upon every act and circumstance of their lives, please, or torment themselves, according to the nature of it, by thinking of what that huge Mrs. Grundy, the World, will say about it".[3] In 1869, John Stuart Mill, himself very aware of the potentially tyrannical power of social opprobrium,[4] referred to Mrs. Grundy in The Subjection of Women, noting that “Whoever has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy”.[5]

Butler in his 1872 Erewhon noted of Ydgrun that “she was held to be both omnipresent and omnipotent; but she was not an elevated conception, and was sometimes both cruel and absurd”.[6] His own preference was for the small group he called High Ydgrunites, who broadly accepted the low-norm conventions of the goddess, but were capable of rising above Mrs Grundy and her claims, if need be.[7]

With the fin de siècle erosion of the Victorian moral consensus,[8] Mrs Grundy began to lose her power, and by the Twenties she was already little more than a faded laughing-stock,[9] being mocked for example in the advice book for teens, Mrs Grundy is Dead (New York: Century, 1930).

A real Mrs Grundy[edit]

During the reign of William IV (reigned 1830–1837) a Mrs Sarah Hannah Grundy (1 January 1804 – 30 December 1863) was employed as Deputy Housekeeper at Hampton Court Palace one of Henry VIII of England's most famous residences. Her husband, John Grundy (1798/1799 – August 1861), was keeper of the State apartments. Mrs Grundy became Head Housekeeper on 22 April 1838, a year after Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, and she served in that position until 1863 when she retired. Her duties included the care of the chapel at Hampton Court.[10]

Royal families stopped using Hampton Court as a residence in 1737, and from the 1760s onward, it was divided up for "grace-and-favour" residents who were granted rent-free accommodation in return for great service to the Crown or country.[11] These private rooms numbered in the hundreds. Much is revealed about the Victorian ladies living at Hampton Court Palace through their letters, particularly their correspondence to the Lord Chamberlain's Office as the Ladies attempted to get around the regulations — to exchange their apartments for better ones, to sub-let their apartments for profit, to keep dogs, or other matters of convenience. Equally revealing are the letters from the Housekeepers to the Lord Chamberlain, complaining about the Ladies' behaviour.[12]

This excerpt from an Australian newspaper reveals the possibility that Hampton Court's Mrs Grundy was a real-life moral regulator who had an impact upon London society, or at least upon the residents of Hampton Court:

Ernest Law, chief historian of Hampton Court, points out that a "Mrs Grundy" did really exist. "That lady was, as a fact, embodied in the housekeeper of that name at Hampton Court Palace in the late 'forties and early 'fifties of last century. Her fame is perpetuated in a dark space — one of the mystery chambers of the palace — the door of which is rarely opened, and which is still known as 'Mrs Grundy's Gallery.' Here she impounded any picture or sculpture which she considered unfit for exhibition in the State rooms; and here she kept them under lock and key in defiance of the authority and protests of the Queen's surveyor of pictures. The story goes that on one occasion the First Commissioner of Works, on a visit of inspection, sent for Mrs Grundy. In answer to the First Commissioner's request, she declined to open the door for him. It was not until the early 1900s that a leaden statue of Venus, which had been sent from Windsor, and was stored in Mrs Grundy's Gallery, was brought forth to adorn Henry VIII's pond garden. "What would Mrs Grundy say?" [13]

However, in a book published in 1836, The Backwoods of Canada Being Letters From The Wife Of An Emigrant Officer, Illustrative Of The Domestic Economy Of British America, by Catharine Parr Traill, she writes: "Now, we bush-settlers are more independent: we do what we like; we dress as we find most suitable and most convenient; we are totally without the fear of any Mr. or Mrs. Grundy; and having shaken off the trammels of Grundyism, we laugh at the absurdity of those who voluntarily forge afresh and hug their chains." This appears to show that the modern concept of "Mrs. Grundy" was current before the Mrs. Grundy of Hampton Court began her reign.

Linguistic associations[edit]

While not strictly onomatopoeia, the name ‘Grundy’ nevertheless has sound associations with underlying mental dissatisfaction as evidenced linguistically in words such as ‘grumble’, ‘mumble’, ‘grunt’, and ‘gruntled’.[14]

Roget’s Thesaurus places Grundyism under prudery, linked most closely to euphemism.[15]


See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ M Sadleir, Trollope (London 1945) p. 30-6
  3. ^ Mrs Grundy Origin
  4. ^ J S Mill, On Liberty (Oxford 2008) p. 8
  5. ^ Mill, John Stuart (1869). The Subjection of Women (1869 first ed.). London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer. p. 167. Retrieved 8 September 2014.
  6. ^ S Butler, Erewhon (London 1933) p. 144
  7. ^ Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism' (Princeton 1972) p. 232
  8. ^ C H Sisson, English Poetry 1900-1950 (Manchester 1981) p. 17
  9. ^ Mrs Grundy Origin
  10. ^ The Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, Royal Household Index, collected in 1995 by Dr Penelope Christensen.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Heath, Gerald Duncan. Hampton Court Palace 'Grace and Favour' in the Nineteenth Century, Borough of Twickenham Local History Society, 1988, page 4
  13. ^ Western Argus (Kalgoorlie, WA: 1916-1938), Tuesday 12 October 1926, page 35
  14. ^ T Gonda, Selected Studies (1976) p. 226
  15. ^ B Kirkpatrick ed., Roget’s Thesaurus (Penguin 1998) p. 650
  16. ^ C S Lewis, That Hideous Strength (London 1945) p. 162
  17. ^ De La Mare, Collected Poems (London 1979) p. 99
  18. ^ The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, February 24, 1947
  19. ^ Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy (London 1994) p. 185
  20. ^ Forster, E. M. (1972). Two Cheers for Democracy. London: Edward Arnold. p. 26. ISBN 0713156589.

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